SPOILERS: I plan on discussing certain elements of this movie that should be seen without any prior knowledge. There isn’t much to spoil, but just be warned that I will be discussing the magic tricks that are part of this unique experience.
There is a fifteen-minute dream sequence early in the second half of Capone, Josh Trank’s wildly subversive and eerie biopic of the famed gangster’s last year, and it signifies that our syphilitic host has suffered a stroke, and might be dying. The idea of a fifteen-minute stretch of detached nightmare imagery in the middle of a story about a gangster’s final days is certainly nothing new, and deserving of an eye roll. Just another contrived moment of introspection from an infamous, condemned man, lazy storytelling, etc. That is, until the sequence happens; when Tom Hardy’s craggy, cursed take on an American super villain gone to seed shuffles down the aisle to join Louis Armstrong on stage for a rendition of “Blueberry Hill” in a buzzing, whirring, disorienting concert hall… I must tell you, dear reader, I was all in.
Capone was never going to be a wide release, though it did have a few hundred theaters scheduled. This was always going to be a quiet return for the director, who has somehow crawled out from under his 2015 Fantastic Four calamity. It’s easy, on the outside looking in, to compare Capone to the 2018 VOD gangster biopic Gotti, John Travolta’s wretched, idiotic, cloying pile of garbage that was seemingly formed in a sentient irony lab and directed by “E” from Entourage. The only reason to see Gotti is for the laughs, and even then it’s not worth it; comparing Capone to that disaster is a fallacy, through and through, because this is no ordinary VOD slapdash effort by Trank and his team, and this is absolutely no cheap dime-store performance from one Tom Hardy.
Capone tells the story of the infamous Chicago gangster’s final year of his life, after his imprisonment for income-tax evasion, and after syphilis has virtually rotted his brain and his body. No longer deemed a threat to society, Capone – known strictly as “Fonse” here – is released from Alcatraz and moves down to his Miami mansion, where he wastes away under the spying eyes of the FBI, and under the care of his eternally suffering wife, Mae, played with remarkable sympathy and pathos by the wonderful Linda Cardellini.
Fonse is basically non functioning as a human being when we meet him in Trank’s haunted nightmare. Early in the film I kept anticipating moments of flashback, where we witness Hardy as a young Al Capone, cracking skulls and taking on Eliot Ness, but after twenty minutes, then thirty minutes, I realized those scenes were not coming. It changed my perspective on what I was seeing, and how the rules of conventional biopics – where these moments of a dying old man would serve as a framing device to slip into past glory – were not going to apply here. No, I was stuck here, trapped in this mansion overrun with statues of gods and angels and gargoyles, this spooky, creaky purgatory. Not only that, I was trapped with the most disgusting human being on the face of the earth.
It was an invigorating feeling.
Hardy’s Capone soils himself twice, he spits and vomits and hacks and the whites of his eyes are soaked with blood. He never is without a stogie burnt almost down to his swollen lips – until he suffers the stroke and his doctor, played by Kyle MacLachlan(!), encourages him to just… well… chew a carrot instead. The poison in Al Capone’s soul and the illness in his blood is barely contained anymore, and Hardy shuffles around the house, paranoid and confused. His family is around, as is his mysterious friend Johnny, played by Matt Dillon. Johnny takes him fishing, and when a gator swipes his catch, Capone blasts the gator with a shotgun. It’s insane, but this is all insane, so it works. Somehow, despite everything working against it, Capone is borderline brilliant in weird and invigorating ways.
The dream sequence preceding Fonse’s stroke and ultimate death is, quite literally, fifteen minutes, and it never feels arduous, because it just keeps getting stranger. The score, from rapper El-P, buzzes and hums and makes nothing ever feel right or normal, or just okay. Most of Capone functions like a horror film, in fact, and had this been released in 1978 with Gene Hackman in the role and John Frankenheimer behind the camera, it might very well be considered a hidden classic. That’s not to say Josh Trank is John Frankenheimer, but he clearly knows how to assemble a film (he’s credited as editor as well) that is original and fresh and often hypnotic. The story itself is formless, and the plot about missing money doesn’t matter at all, because this isn’t a suspenseful thriller about lost fortune. It’s an oblique portrait of a monster gone mad.
Trank was lucky to nab Tom Hardy for this role. There is no actor working today that I would want to watch dissolve into a puddle of insane bile more than Hardy, who manages to shape this wildly hyperbolic characterization into an avant-garde work from a movie star who knows how to find his own insane frequency in every role. Tom Hardy is unlike any living actor, a madman who men want to be and women want to stare at, a dog-loving Brit who veers outside of the Hollywood system while simultaneously meeting the beauty and the possibilities of its craft head on, and giving his audience everything they want to see.
Capone will definitely annoy some people; it will absolutely bore some, and it might even confuse more people than not. But that’s not as much a fault of Trank’s film as it is of expectations. There are those aforementioned rules about the structure of biopics, where we need to see the subject at his or her peak, and we need to watch their rise and fall. Capone is intentionally absent of those moments, and maybe by the second time Fonse soils himself – during FBI questioning, no less – some audience members will head for the virtual exit. That’s fine, because it’s not for everyone, and it isn’t hard to see how it might revolt some people. Those people will miss the finale, and that has to be seen to be believed.
If you’re willing to get on Trank’s wavelength – and you’re starving for something new that feels like a real movie again – you might find Capone to be the most exciting viewing experience of 2020, a madhouse movie that devolves into chaos; a movie about being stuck at home that, yes, feels very timely.